BlackBerry Ltd. has unveiled its first smartphone in years aimed primarily at business and government users, hoping the product's unique look will recapture the company's long-lost curb appeal and lift its fortunes.
The Passport is a hybrid smartphone with an oversized square touchscreen measuring 4.5 inches diagonally, a long-lasting battery and a keyboard that doubles as a touchpad. It has several features aimed at business users, including a voice-activated "assistant" reminiscent of Apple's "Siri."
The device addresses three long-standing complaints about BlackBerrys in the hope of winning back former fans who gave up on the Waterloo, Ont. company for touchscreen phones by Apple and Samsung. The larger screen gives BlackBerry a fresh chance to highlight its new operating system, which launched to little interest last year but has been updated to make it more usable.
The keyboard, missing from many recent BlackBerrys, has been updated with a contemporary look and feel: it has three rows instead of four, and functions and symbols have been moved off the keys onto an on-screen control bar. The company has addressed its "app gap" by linking to Amazon's app store, with 200,000 Android apps, including Netflix, Pinterest and other popular programs unavailable on past BlackBerrys.
With its new look and functions, the keyboard is being positioned as a "talking point" feature at a time when less than 1 per cent of smartphones globally have keyboards.
"The Passport was created to drive productivity and to break through the sea of rectangular-screen, all-touch devices,"chief executive John Chen said. Insiders say the design is intended to evoke "love-it-or-hate it" reactions. Even Mr. Chen said he was initially taken aback by its large size. But he chose to continue the product's development because it was unique and innovative enough not to be perceived as a 'me too'" product.
At a launch event in Toronto Wednesday morning, Mr. Chen talked about wanting to win back Canadians, and in an effort to "pull out all the stops" he was joined on stage by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who praised the BlackBerry Hub messaging centre and claimed to be a "day one" BlackBerry user. The company is also holding events in London and Dubai.
BlackBerry is targeting a group it labels "power professionals," primarily white-collar "achievement oriented...highly productive customers" who keep up with technology trends, said chief operating officer Marty Beard. The company figures this group accounts for about 8 per cent of the global smartphone market. If it can sell to even a minority of them, "we would absolutely crush our operating plan" of selling 10 million devices a year, Beard said.
For more conservative users who haven't liked its recent products, BlackBerry is offering the "Classic" this fall based on an older model. The strategy is a break from past regimes, which tried to appeal to both enterprise and consumer customers, resulting in devices criticized for looking too much like rival touchscreen smartphones.
Since joining BlackBerry 10 months ago, Mr. Chen, the former CEO of Sybase Inc., has overseen the last stages of a deep restructuring and refocused the company on its dwindling core "enterprise" customer base. He expects the company to generate positive cash flow next year, BlackBerry is forecast to report second-quarter revenue of about $1-billion (U.S.) on Friday and a net loss of 16 cents per share.
Observers are adopting a wait-and-see approach. Raymond James analyst Stephen Li predicts BlackBerry will sell 250,000 Passports in its first quarter, a sliver of the 300 million smartphones shipped globally per quarter.
An executive with a Canadian wireless carrier said his company had modest expectations, labelling the Passport a "niche" product that will appeal to select professionals such as doctors and architects.
"BlackBerry certainly has its work cut out for it,"in the face of enormous marketing efforts by Apple and Samsung, the carrier executive said. The Passport is expected to sell in Canada for about $250 with a two-year plan. All three major carriers here as well as AT&T in the U.S. are carrying the device, and it is expected to be available in 30 countries by year's end.
But early user feedback suggests BlackBerry may benefit from strong word of mouth praise. The company has been "seeding" devices with select executives and VIPs in recent weeks, including actor Matthew Broderick and Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Several users interviewed by The Globe and Mail all said they were initially hesitant about the device's odd look, but quickly adapted to it – and plan to keep using it as their main smartphone. They raved about the keyboard, the screen size and battery life and said the device turns heads wherever they go.
"I have a list of about a dozen people who say, 'You have to help me get one as soon as they launch," said MLSE chief commercial officer Dave Hopkinson, one of the device testers.
Asked what he doesn't like about the Passport, his boss, Mr. Lieweke said: "I don't like the fact it keeps ringing at 10:30 at night, but that's not BlackBerry's fault ... I think it will be a big hit with the business man who misses" using a keyboard.
Prem Watsa, founder of Fairfax Financial and the largest BlackBerry shareholder, said Passport represents a return to BlackBerry's lost reputation for producing reliable technology. After the company's stumbles with the PlayBook tablet and Z10 phones he said, "I'm really very excited" about Passport. "In business it is all about execution and John Chen is showing us that we're really back".
At the end of the presentation Mr. Chen made light of the $100 price difference for Canadian shoppers (it sells for $599 unlocked in U.S.) "I don't know why," he said.
He also jokes that giving new Passport devices to the assembled media cost the company $150,000 "which I could certainly use."
And in a tease of the next BlackBerry product in the pipeline, he quickly flashed the coming Classic, which appeared to be more narrow, black and silver, with rounded corners and a tall screen.